Sunday, November 15, 2009


Obama has yet to issue a decision on an Afghan strategy. There are 4 options on the table - McChrystal's “all-in” of 40,000 troops; Gates/Clinton's preferred "middle road" of 30,000 troops; a more "user friendly" option of 20,000 troops; and a fourth with no numbers attached. The "user friendly" option would surely better suit the public mood – currently 54% of the American public disapproves of escalation. The fourth option is seen as a gesture to Joe Biden, the administration's leading voice against sending more troops.

Obama has demonstrated a tendency to err on the side of meticulous decision-making rather than on speed. But as David Broder noted, sometimes any decision is better than none. Having already promised (and sent) more troops this summer, Obama demands that any further US action must be accompanied by "offramps," effective means to hand the job over to sufficiently trained Afghans.

A series of cables sent to Obama by Ambassador and General Karl Eikenberry were leaked this week, refreshing a stale debate in Washington while giving the president some additional political cover. By arguing against troop escalation (that would diminish Afghan ability to meet the challenges of a post-American Afghanistan) and by questioning both Karzai and his government’s corruption, Eikenberry returned the focus to questions surrounding the still-undefined strategy: Is the goal to capture Al-Qaeda? To root out the Taliban? Is it to bring security to the Afghan people? To battle corruption? What role for Pakistan? No consensus seems to exist around where the central focus lies.

Obama traveled to Asia this week in a multi-stop tour of the region scheduled around the APEC summit and subsequent ASEAN leaders meeting. He also held a bilateral with Russian President Medvedev. The APEC meeting produced underwhelming results on climate change, as leaders failed to formalize a binding accord in advance of December's Copenhagen Summit.

The trip marks a milestone in US-Burma relations in which Obama and Burmese leaders sat at the same table. Though not a bilateral, Obama used the occasion to introduce direct talks to the current sanctions-heavy policy and to call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. While looking for new avenues to cooperate with China, Obama and President Hu Jintao are expected to discuss the value of the Chinese currency, increasing Chinese consumption of US goods, bilateral economic relations, and human rights.

Obama also has an obligation to use this trip to reassure smaller regional allies who view America’s realpolitik approach vis-à-vis big powers with skepticism. Obama must reassure them that America will help mitigate the rise of China and uphold its security guarantees in the face of China’s rise, Russian ambitions, and North Korean proliferation. Obama must make the effort to show these smaller allies that America will not relax its commitments and thus make acquiescence to Beijing an undesired - yet necessary - political choice for these nations.


On Monday, November 9, Obama sat down one-on-one with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Major topics purportedly included Mahmoud Abbas' threat to quit and the consequences of a possible collapse of the Palestinian Authority on the flagging peace process. Since Secretary Clinton called Israel's nine-month suspension of new settlements "unprecedented," the White House has fought to repair the fallout from Clinton's gaffe. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel called publicly for a full freeze. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns then said Israel's efforts "fall short" of their "obligations" under the roadmap. A good faith message to reassure Abbas, Burns' language is notable because Palestinians consider a settlement freeze an Israeli obligation rather than a mere “precondition.”

Attorney General Eric Holder announced his decision to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other Gitmo detainees in civilian federal court in New York. Should problems arise in the prosecution, Obama risks backlash from politicians who do not want terrorists brought to court in their districts. The political price could be retaliation against other parts of the Obama agenda. Nonetheless, Obama's move demonstrates the administration's eagerness to bring the perpetrators to justice (Mohammed has repeatedly confessed not only to planning 9/11 but also to killing Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl). Many critics regret this move, denouncing the possible effects of redefining the events of 9/11 as a civil crime rather than an act of war.

-Amy Greene